“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is common wisdom, but the Torah, in this week’s parsha, tells us how to properly judge. The pasuk in Parshat Devarim states, “You shall not favor persons [lit. you shall not recognize a face] in judgment, you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord…” (1:17). Rashi explains that while, of course, a judge is not allowed to show favor to a litigant, this verse is not speaking about the judge himself, rather about the one who appoints the judge. The latter authority should not choose a judge based on his external appearance or a family connection. No one involved in any step of the judgment process can show favoritism or bias at all.
However, the prohibition to judge based on externalities does play a unique role within the courtroom itself. Rabbi Yitzchak Kunstadt, a 19th-century Hungarian rabbi, in his sefer Luach Arez, warns against judges who try to read too much into litigants’ facial expressions. Only major emotions surface on one’s face. Extreme anger is often clear through facial expressions, but minor, more complex emotions do not necessarily appear on the face. Rabbi Kunstadt also asserts that an uneducated person may freely show his emotions, but one who is sophisticated can control his expressions. Rabbi Kunstadt quotes Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the late 18th-century French diplomat, who once said, “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.” A judge who thinks he can decipher the truth by reading facial expressions or body language might pervert justice.
Rabbi Kunstadt explains the flow of Devarim 1:17 based on his analysis: “You shall not favor persons in judgment” prohibits a judge from making decisions in court based on facial expressions. “You shall hear the small” means that because small emotions are not prominently featured on one’s face, one cannot use them to make judgments. “Just as the great” means that great, sophisticated people are good at hiding their true thoughts, which makes judging based on externalities unreliable.
There was once a popular scientific belief called physiognomy, that was especially in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries, that facial features such as nose or ear shape showed the essence of a human being. If a person was good or evil, a thief or honest, that could all be determined through a close look at their physical appearance. There is a fascinating physiognomic folktale recorded by Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, a 19th-century Polish rabbi, in his work on the Mishnah, the Tiferet Yisrael (Kiddushin 4:14). After Moshe took the Jews out of Egypt, all the nations were in awe of him. The king of the Arabs sent an artist to draw a portrait of Moshe to capture the essence of his greatness so his physiognomists could interpret the picture to see how great Moshe truly was. The scientists studied the portrait and told the king that the man (Moshe) is haughty, loves money, is filled with desire and has all other possible flaws that could be found in a human being. The king was furious and confused; he had heard the opposite about Moshe from everyone else. The scientists blamed the artist and the artist blamed the scientists. The king decided to find out the truth for himself, and he traveled to the camp of the Jews. To his surprise, he saw that the artist had drawn Moshe accurately. The king was upset that his physiognomists had failed. He bowed before Moshe, told him the whole story and accused his physiognomists of being charlatans. Moshe explained that the scientists were not completely wrong, because by nature he was truly a haughty man, etc.; however, he had conquered his negative midot and that is what made Moshe Rabbeinu revered by everyone on heaven and earth.
Judging people based on externalities—whether appearance, facial expressions or physical features—is not productive in or out of the courtroom. The external is superficial. What happens internally is the most important part of a person. The lesson of the legend of the Arab king and his physiognomists is that if one only looks at the outside he cannot see the struggles, efforts, failures and every success that an individual has gone through. Only looking at externalities does not take into account bechira chafshit (free choice). This last point is very relevant even today, when physiognomy is no longer considered a legitimate science. Contemporary science does believe that genetic and environmental factors influence people. And yet even though these factors are internal, they are not determinative.
Everyone starts off with human deficiencies, even Moshe Rabbeinu. Every person is born with influences surrounding him that he cannot control. The Tiferet Yisrael’s folktale teaches us that people are able conquer both their nature and their nurture with bechira chafshit, and to transform themselves into people who have yirat Shamayim and can serve Hashem properly.
By Sara Schapiro
Bergenfield’s Sara Schapiro is a recent graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for girls and an incoming freshman at Stern College for Women.